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Arguing Toward the Middle

As a benefit of my attendance at the Skeptic’s conference last may, I have been receiving copies of their flagship magazine. The magazine has begun to entertain the views of theists that work in the sciences. The dialog is generally pretty counterproductive, with the participants often talking past each other. Motivated by the debate between Dave Matson and Douglas Navarick (Debating the “God” Construct) in Vol. 20 No. 4, I address the issues of abiogenesis (the origin of cellular life) and the distinction between “supernatural” phenomena and those such as spirituality that lack an explanation.

You’ll find another response to Navarick’s original article here.


Dave:

As a scientist who believes that the soul is a part of the physical construction of this reality, I am dismayed by the tone of your response to Douglas Navarick.

“Supernatural” is a tendentious term

The scientist loves to ask “Why?”, and comes up with theories that propose explanatory relationships. In propagating those abstractions, an elite cognoscenti is created. As this elite solidifies its political power, funding of scientific research tends to crowd out radical ideas (I refer you to Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions).

So the researchers at CERN focus on the discovery of the “Higgs boson” (which looks nothing like the Higgs boson I studied in graduate school), despite the fact that the Higgs mechanism actually doesn’t explain particle masses – you still need to generate the coupling constants that determine the mass of each individual particle. The “Higgs boson”, however, has been built up as an accomplishment worthy of pursuit, and so is trumpeted as a Nobel-worthy achievement even though – with the exception of charge – no property of the simplest composites (the mesons and nucleons) can be calculated from the standard model of the fundamental forces – even given the measured properties of the quarks. Thus we have a situation in which the obvious failures of current theory are ignored to the purpose of sustaining funding for large-scale research programs with many stakeholders outside of the sciences.

Following Kuhn, I would argue that fundamental physics is ripe for a revolution. The issues as I see them are outlined here. Conceptually, it would seem that if one posited structure inside the current collection of “fundamental” particles, it actually wouldn’t be too hard to make room for the soul. I also have a far simpler picture of this reality, without the unobservable (and highly unstable) Planck-scale plasma and alternate universes. (The multiverse theory, BTW, being obviously another version of your magical hare-brained Easter Bunny.)

So rather than “supernatural”, I would prefer a term that suggested “beyond the things that scientists can yet explain.” “Spirituality” may fit. I would hope that you would admit that scientists, with their emphasis on material experience, may self-select from among those that are spiritually insensitive. As one not so insensitive, often marveling at the healing power of love, I find that “hare-brained Easter Bunny” provides no explanatory leverage. There is something to life beyond what particle physics can yet explain. I’d like to have a rational dialog on the topic.

Of course, if I am right, everyone will be confronted with the need to rethink the record of scripture that has been brought forward from many cultures. Clawing back the sarcasm is going to take a great deal of courage, I recognize, but no less than surrendering the comfort of dogmatism on the other side.

Abiogenesis

This really isn’t that hard a problem. Assume that the oceans contain distributed pools of heavy hydrocarbons in contact with various sources of heat and minerals on the ocean floor. The hydrocarbon pools will develop a skin of polarized molecules (maybe even phospholipids, as phosphor is not rare). Other fundamental components of life (nucleic acids, amino acids, etc.) may also be sourced from the complex chemistry of the pool, which could support (as we know) selective exchange of materials with the water. Agitation of the pool (through earthquakes, overflow, or venting) will result in formation of protocells. These events will  produce innumerable trials, liberated into sub-sea currents. Eventually among those trials will be cells that can scavenge materials for growth from the environment. Voila! Life.

Pools lying on different mineral strata will form protocells with different morphologies. Those with compatible membranes could merge, producing further biochemical trials. Which is what we actually know happened – cells are composed of organelles that were protocells in their own right before being absorbed.

BTW – there’s an IMAX on life around thermal vents in which the pilots of the deep sea vehicle actually interact with such a hydrocarbon pool.

Regards,

Brian Balke

2 thoughts on “Arguing Toward the Middle

  1. How to make room for the “soul”? What room? Who needs to posit the existence of a soul? Every observation we have tells us that there is no such thing as a “sou.” We are merely bodies. We change the thing that some people call a “soul’ merely by becoming drunk, by ingesting drugs, by suffering a brain injury, by becoming ill, or merely by becoming tired. We observe other persons, and we note that, when their bodies cease to function, what we were pleased to call their “souls” disappear.

    The conclusion? “Soul” is simply a term. We use it to describe a host of body states–and we use it to posit a host of states that simply do not exist.

    Neurobiologists have demolished the notion of a “soul” or a “mind” existing separately from the body. See Damasio, Edelman, Dehaene.

    And not a single person has ever offered any solution to the interaction problem. If there is both mind and body, just how does mind interact with body? Can’t answer that? Then the mind/soul hypothesis is no more than that: just a hypothesis.

    • All that I can offer is that there are correlations between my dream life and the waking world that I cannot explain – things like people coming up to me and saying “Thank-you” or “Have you been dreaming about me?”

      Some may choose not to participate – and I accept people may have history that causes them to be afraid of spiritual experience. One of the great things about having a body is that it is dense, we inhabit it intimately, and we can withdraw into it when we need to protect ourselves.

      You demand a “mechanism”, but there are many aspects of the brain’s function that we don’t understand. I remember reading a report that glial cells contribute energy to neurons through a mechanism that isn’t yet understood. And there is a history of “functional clusters” of neurons (mirror neurons for empathy and another cluster for homosexual tendency) that are debunked by later study.

      My assessment is that neurobiologist have only a mechanism – the model of signal transmission across action potentials (analogous to transistor gates in digital logic) that may correlate well with simple systems such as cockroaches and worms, but that has yet to be demonstrated in human behavior. I also have a mechanism – the formation of structures out of electrical field lines (which can be unbound from matter) that can produce pressure that moves matter. See That’s the Spirit. That can cause neurons to fire, which through the usual material pathways causes our body to respond.

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